Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Album: How to Solve Our Human Problems
In Brief: Spreading this collection of songs over three separately released EPs made it a little easier to digest this wealth of new material, but it also gives the impression that there was no real master plan for most of it to fit together cohesively. It’s always great to see Belle & Sebastian expanding their musical horizons, and there honestly isn’t a weak track in the bunch. But the collection lacks a central sense of identity, which makes me wonder whether the band is done with traditional “album releases” and would rather just put out music in a more “stream-of-consciousness” fashion in the future.
I find it interesting that following a rather spread-out release schedule that saw 4-5 year gaps between their last three albums, Scottish indie pop darlings Belle & Sebastian decided to go with a gradual rollout of their newest project, How to Solve Our Human Problems. Whether these fifteen songs could be considered an “album” in the traditional sense, or merely a collection of three five-song EPs all given the same name, is probably a subjective matter. The first of these EPs was released in December 2017, with the other two spilling over into the new year and coming out in January and February, and the material has all been compiled into a single “compilation” for those of us who don’t mind taking on all of it at once. With over an hour of new music, and nearly all of it strong enough to avoid the cutting room floor, I can see why the band might have been wary about a traditional release strategy for this one, as their albums tend to be on the long side to begin with, and I guess they feel like they’ve been getting diminishing returns, where they drop a record and relatively little happens once the initial buzz surrounding the lead single dies down. This gave them the chance to show up in music blogs and the like three times as frequently, and I’m not sure whether that’s a clever release strategy or a disingenuous one, considering we’ve seen more mainstream acts like John Mayer and Owl City adopting a similar strategy to build up extra hype for albums of more conventional length that are becoming available to fans in large chunks, enabling them to hear most of the project before the actual release date. Personally, I think this makes the few remaining tracks that have gone unheard seem a bit anti-climactic when an album finally drops, but either way, I can’t help but be grateful to get this much new material – and most of it very high-quality – from a band who I think deserves more credit than they seem to get for a late-career renaissance that has seen them expanding their sound a great deal in the 2010s.
As always when reviewing an album by B&S, I have to note that I’m rather fuzzy on the band’s history before the mid-2000s or so. 2006’s The Life Pursuit was my personal entry point, but 2010’s Write About Love is where I really got hooked, and I had great fun with their last “traditional” album release, 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. As a follow-up effort, How to Solve Our Human Problems doesn’t sound like it has any apologies to make for the previous record’s forays into synthesized dance-pop, nor does it seem to care that it’s got pastoral folk songs and feel-good “hippie rock” type tracks that could almost fool you into thinking it’s the 60s all over again, butting right up against some of the more supercharged rhythmic material. Pretty much anything goes on this collection, which reaches peak weirdness on the second EP, before leaning more heavily on smooth pop nostalgia on the third. I can’t say there’s a definitive sound that describes any one of these EPs overall – there’s even a largely instrumental track on part one that gets reprised with lyrics on part three, which gives me the impression that we’re simply hearing all of these ideas in the order that the band came up with them.
If there’s a common thread throughout this collection, it’s that Belle & Sebastian has crafted most of these songs to show off three things. One, their ingenuity for coming up with melodies and chord progressions that morph and change over the course of a song more than they would in a traditional pop song, and yet remain incredibly catchy most of the time. Two, the multiple vocalists and songwriters crafting their material, giving Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin a few more spotlight tracks than they might get on a conventional album, and also giving them ample room to breathe in songs led by de facto frontman Stuart Murdoch, which presents the album as a truly collaborative effort – always something I appreciate in a band with this many members. Three, the instrumental versatility of those many members, from the violin and flute contributed by Sarah Martin to some of the band’s mellower tunes, to funkier and more psychedelic surprises on a few of the more manic ones. This is a record I’m most interested in listening to just to hear the sheer joy behind their performances and the seemingly endless ingenuity as they bounce ideas off of each other. The album title might hint at a vague sort of social consciousness, and there are certainly political undertones in a few of these tracks, but most of them land in the same wistful, hopelessly lovey-dovey and too shy to know what to do with it sort of territory as much of my favorite material from the last few albums. This’ll be great stuff to share with audiences on their latest tour, and most of it will fit right in with the highlights from the latter phase of the band’s career. If you’re still a fan of their early days longing for a return to a simpler style, then the band’s probably been letting you down for quite a while, but I rather like the “a little something for everyone” approach they’re taking these days, which means that years from now when I’m probably going back and listening to hand-picked tracks a lot more often than the full collection, I’ll still be revisiting most of this record in bits and pieces, rather than just enjoying a single or two while I forget about the rest.
1. Sweet Dew Lee
While a number of tracks across this project take their sweet time, the opener is actually the longest of all fifteen, and I’m grateful for that because it’s also my favorite. It’s unusual for Stevie Jackson to be the first voice you hear on a Belle & Sebastian record – his songs tend to be the oddball sideshows rather than the main attraction. This is actually a quite lovely duet between him and Stuart Murdoch, both of them pining over a woman who I can only assume was a childhood crush. We’ve heard a lot of wistful songs in this vein before, but the lyrics really drive home that sense of regret over a road not taken: “Reconcile yourself to knowing/That glamour fades as time moves on/I once held you in a bold caress/But now my nose is pressed against the glass.” While the melody and rhythm are slightly reminiscent of the previous album’s “Play for Today”, the shimmering guitars and the slick chord progressions are what really make this one stand out to me, like a long lost love ballad from the disco era, except that it gets taken over by glistening synthesizers in the euphoric bridge section. This song, to me, is like an aural kaleidoscope. The colors are constantly shifting, revealing something new.
2. We Were Beautiful
One of the early singles released from the project is up next. This one makes the interesting choice to put the band’s rhythm section front and center, with Bobby Kildea‘s bass standing out in particular. And there’s even a bit of slide guitar – who does that in a song like this?! It’s an inventive little rhythmic workout that gives Stuart an interesting backdrop as he muses about what could be a sexual relationship that grew stale as both partners lost their youthful innocence, or what could be a toxic relationship between an indie band and the “scene” surrounding it. These lyrics from the second verse seem to support the latter interpretation: “We were in the uber scene/Where they grind the coffee bean/Where the women are oblique/And the boys are paper thin/Ragged beards upon their chin/We were on the outside looking in.” That sounds like the wryly expressed frustration of a songwriter who wants to make more than just pleasantly twee background music for frou-frou coffee shops. I love the groove and the overall attitude of this song, however I do thing that its sheer length derails it. It’s a good minute shorter than “Sweet Dew Lee”, but it takes a while to build to its chorus, and while I love the driving energy of that chorus, the band seems to be stalling for time at a few points on the way there. The bridge also makes the weird choice to briefly slow the rhythm down, while Stuart stumbles through a rather awkward chorus progression, trying to find his way back to where he started. I appreciate how much this band is willing to deviate from the four chords of pop, but it doesn’t always work in their favor, and I can’t get all the way through that bridge without wanting to say “Ouch”. Other than that, it’s a solid track that manages to be uber-catchy without sounding like much of anything I’ve heard from the band before.
3. Fickle Season
The arrival of colder weather and the desire to flee to warmer places sets the tone for a melancholy Sarah Martin ballad – one which didn’t stand out to me much at first, but which gradually won me over with its soft textures and especially with the flute solo she plays near the end of it. Musically, this is the closest thing to classic Belle & Sebastian we’ve heard so far – its main instrument is an electric guitar, but strummed very softly and sweetly, as if the band were performing in a coffeehouse and that were the only instrument they could plug in. Sarah’s assurance that “Home is anywhere you find me” makes this song feel like it could be the narrative flipside of “Sweet Dew Lee”, where the man who has been away from years and years doesn’t realize that the girl he once loved but couldn’t manage to hold on to all those decades ago still misses him and wishes he’d come back to his old stomping rounds so that they could give it another go.
4. The Girl Doesn’t Get It
The central conceit of this album – that songs could somehow represent, much less solve, our wide range of “human problems” – may well have originated from this song, which seems to express frustration over a stew of relational and political and philosophical problems. At first it seems to be about a girl so hungry for love that she’ll happily marry the first bozo who comes along, but as the song progresses, she seems to get easily seduced by fear and xenophobia when they come hand-in-hand with the promise of a safer country for people who look like her: “They’ll take profits over people/They will make the country great again/Just as long as it’s white and ugly/Fear the immigrant workforce/Fear the kids raised on the internet/They are scared if they can’t control you.” It’s a not-at-all subtle swipe at Trumpism, and that sort of thing seems to be popping up a lot these days in lyrics from bands who I wouldn’t normally consider “political”. (And this is not something that I mind hearing at all.) The final verse is where the tone gets more philosophical: “If compassion was honoured/All our dumb human problems/Would belong in a bin marked history.” It’s a bit of an overly simplified solution, but I think they’ve got their finger on the problem, at least – when we put looking out for number one over compassion for others, we tend to mistake those who exploit our fears with those who actually love and care about us. The band’s performance here is once again top notch, delivering another upbeat, drum and bass-heavy groove with a strong keyboard melody floating on top it it, a fun, talkbox-y sort of guitar solo in the bridge, some welcome vocal trade-offs between Stuart and Sarah, and an overall peppy spirit that reminds me a bit of “We Are the Sleepyheads”, the first Belle & Sebastian song I fell in love with all those years ago.
5. Everything Is Now (Instrumental)
This track is one of the only head-scratchers on the project – I can’t help but feel like this is the kind of thing that probably would have ended up as a bonus track or B-side on a conventional album release. Calling it an “instrumental” is a slight misnomer, because there is a group vocal chorus of “Everything is now/Everything is different now” that shows up at the very beginning and end of the song. But most of its five and a half minutes are filled with solos from the various instrumentalists in the band. The chill vibe of the song and the prominence of Sarah’s flute, as well as an organ solo that shows up early on, really give this track a 1960s sort of aura – I’m picturing peace signs and flowery headbands and beaded curtains as I listen to this one. And it’s a pleasant listen, but I’m not going to pretend that anyone in the band is a master of improvisation or anything. The solos, for the most part, stick to the verse melody that we’re going to hear on a later version of this track that has vocals all the way through. Like most of this project, the composition is notable for how it deftly changes things up by shifting into different keys and wringing possible every bit of color from its melody. So I enjoy listening to it, and it’s a nice way to close out the first of the three EPs, but I honestly feel like I’m hearing the reprise to a song that should have showed up earlier.
6. Show Me the Sun
The slightly raspy “Na na na”s at the beginning of this song are a bit of a warning shot, letting you know the second EP is going to be even quirkier than the first one. The drums and bass are front and center once again, and everything from the guitars to the vocals seems to be coated with a slight bit of grime, giving the song a bit more urgency than the up-tempo tracks from EP 1. Once again, the interplay between Stuart and Sarah adds a lot to the performance, and the lyrics are some of the band’s densest and most intriguing, which if I’m interpreting them right, seem to be describing the gift of making music as a force that can be used for good or evil. As in “We Were Beautiful”, there’s a bit of a clunky bridge section that temporarily slows things down – it’s not as awkward of a fit melodically as the previous example, but it does make me wonder why they felt the need to draw attention to that section by shifting gears so suddenly. The lyrics leading into that section proclaim: “I wanna be with Lazarus, I’m on the side of the weak.” So there may be something more to this life-and-death metaphor that I’m not quite picking up on yet.
7. The Same Star
Sarah gets to front one song per EP, though in the latter two examples she gets a pretty heavy assist from Stuart, and that’s fine, because I love how these two play off of each other, with a lot of the songs they collaborate on feeling like two sides of a conversation. While this song has a throwback groove similar to some of the other 60s and 70s-inspired material on this collection, it’s probably the weakest of these types of songs in the hook department – I tend to remember that it slides by rather pleasantly but doesn’t have as strong of a melody as most of the other tracks. Sarah seems to be describing a relationship as two celestial bodies orbiting the same center, but both of them are so big and so forceful that they eventually collide and break apart, upsetting the balance of the entire solar system. Given that image, the band’s delivery here seems rather subdued, but it’s still an enjoyable performance.
8. I’ll Be Your Pilot
As attention-grabbing as the up-tempo tracks on this collection tend to be, the true standouts on EP 2 are actually the ballads. This track gives Stuart the opportunity to offer some heartfelt advice to his son as the boy grows older, which is best summed up in the second verse: “It’s tough to become a grown up/Put it off while you can/I tell you that when you land in the real world/It’s like quick sand.” This seems a bit pessimistic, but beyond just “Hey man, growing up sucks”, I think it’s reminder for his son to not be in a huge hurry to shed his youthful innocence, because it’s a precious time in his life that he’ll never get back once it’s gone. Using imagery from The Little Prince as an inspiration, Stuart offers to be his pilot, taking the boy on an adventure somewhere remote in the Sahara dsesert, “a thousand miles form the nearest problem”. While this is one of the more musically simplistic tracks on the entire project, mostly built around a laid-back acoustic guitar and a gentle rhythm, the inclusion of an English horn adds a lot of character to the song, giving it an adventurous, fantasy-world sort of mood that gels beautifully with the fantastic lyrics. This one gets me a little misty-eyed.
Stevie Jackson is definitely in full-on “oddball sideshow” mode here, giving absolutely no warning as a furious disco beat comes crashing in and he begins to sing a rather disorienting melody that will probably sound off-key and annoying to most people on first listen. I couldn’t imagine any of this being salvageable at first, even though the group’s attempts at throwback dance-pop generally put a big smile on my face. It isn’t until the backing vocals come in later, and your brain gets a chance to wrap itself around the weird melodic pattern of this song, that it all starts to make sense – and even then, the whole thing is a bit tense and alienating, if I’m honest. I’ve slowly learned to enjoy this one for the off-the-wall experiment that it is, and it’s to the band’s credit that the method to their madness slowly becomes clear, despite the avoidance of typical verse/chorus structure that leads to new sections coming in, sometimes with jarring key changes, just as you’re getting the hang of what the band’s been doing so far. If Rod Stewart somehow found a way to turn “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” into an intense, kinda-creepy stalker song, that might give you an idea of the vibe that the band is going for here, though what any of that has to do with the later refrains about stepping out into Glasgow city (I always appreciate a lyrical nod to a band’s hometown) and putting the cornflakes back in the bowl, is a complete mystery to me. At some point, the fact that I have no idea what the hell’s going on in this song becomes an asset instead of a liability. It’s lovably weird, and I’m guessing it’ll be appreciated by a small but vocal minority among the band’s fanbase.
10. A Plague on Other Boys
The closing ballad on EP 2 is another home run, thanks to a rich, wistful melody and liberal use of Sarah’s flute. Stuart’s all messed up over a crush from his younger days again, though college seems to be the setting for this one in particular, and since the setting is Nebraska of all places, this could well be a story about someone else he knows or has made up, rather than his own experience. Whoever’s point of view he’s singing from, the guy seems to have gone and fallen in love with an activist, who respects him a great deal and who reciprocates his friendship, but not his romantic feelings, meaning there’s always some other man in her life, but she never sees him as a potential partner. Her optimism, her politics, and her drive to change the world seem to have left a real mark on him, and unfortunately so has the letdown of unrequited love that apparently did a number on his academic performance and took him a good decade to recover from. I wonder if this story is in any way related to “Allie” from the previous album – Stuart seems to have a thing for strong, vocal, world-changing women.
11. Poor Boy
The third EP is an interesting conclusion to the series, in that it’s still very poppy in a lot of ways, but it leaves behind the most frenetic workouts of the previous two EPs, and has more of a relaxed vibe overall. The single chosen from this EP is about as close to “funky” as I’d ever expect an indie folk-type band from Scotland to ever get – the bass line pops right out with a sort of casual defiance, and Richard Colburn quite effectively echoes that attitude on his drum kit, making excellent use of the snare and hi-hat. This is another one of those songs where Sarah and Stuart seem to be having a dialogue with each other, and her voice seems to serve as a rebuttal for a lot of the heroine worship that’s gone on earlier in the record, on tracks like “Sweet Dew Lee” and “A Plague on Other Boys”. Frustrated with being put on a pedestal and pretty much canonized as a saint, she seeks to tear down a lovelorn young boy’s illusions of her, seeking instead to be known as a person with flaws and desires and a mind of her own – “Talk to me, don’t venerate me now”. I love how effortlessly this song’s melody slides in and out of the different parts of their conversation, and how well the backing vocals come together to make sure that the chorus melody really sticks in your head. The music video for this one is definitely worth checking out – there may well be 20 different storylines going on there that could lend themselves to a variety of amusing interpretations.
12. Everything Is Now (Part Two)
Two months after the December 2017 release of EP 1, we finally got the payoff promised by its (mostly) instrumental closing track. This time, we’ve got lyrics all the way through, and there’s a sort of satisfaction to finally filling in those blanks and finding out what sort of existential crisis the phrase “Everything is different now” (or alternatively, “Everything’s indifferent now”) was actually referring to. Calm and collected as this song is, Stuart actually seems to be trying to talk someone down from a ledge, where they’re feeling completely hopeless and hemmed in by a cruel fate, ready to call it quits on life altogether. It’s a heavy topic for such a relaxed song, and that might be part of the problem I have with it. I can’t say that either version is obviously better than the other – a part of me really enjoys hearing the different instruments take a crack at the verse and chorus melodies in the instrumental, but wishes there could be more lyrics, and now that the lyrics are present here, I find myself missing those extra instrumental bits, because there’s no real change in the energy level from beginning to end. So both version end up being just “merely good”. I feel like it might have worked out better to put this song earlier in the track listing and then close the album with the instrumental jam as a sort of bookend. It’s very strange to me that this version is right smack in the middle of the third EP – at the very least, closing with this one would have provided a nice bit of symmetry.
13. Too Many Tears
Is that a love triangle I smell? I tend to interpret the female voice that leads off this song, singing “I picked the right one, you picked the wrong one”, as either a married woman singing to a man she once rejected, noting that he is still pining for her, or else someone in the reverse situation, who chose the guy she’s singing to, but he chose to be with someone else and now regrets it. Either way, it’s a recipe for much sadness, as the song’s title indicates. This track is produced in such a way that feels like it could have been unearthed from an old soul record (a really white soul record, but still). I’m actually not certain of whether the lead female vocal on this one is actually Sarah. The quality of her voice sounds a little bit different, and at times I feel like I hear Sarah harmonizing behind whoever this is, but thus far I haven’t been able to find conclusive evidence that they pulled in a guest vocal for this track. (Their last few albums had duets with the likes of Norah Jones, Carey Mulligan, and Dee Dee Penny, so it’s certainly possible.) What amuses me about this song the most is the little pause in the final verse when Stuart gets a bit self-referential about how melancholy the whole situation has made him: “Well, listen to me, what a drag/This kinda thing’s just not my bag.” (I almost want Austin Powers to butt in there and tack the word “Baby!” on to the end of that sentence.)
14. There Is an Everlasting Song
This track is about the folksiest that Belle & Sebastian get on this project – it’s laid-back, toe-tapping acoustic music with a vaguely bluegrassy bass line and a little bit of finger-picking to sweeten the deal, but nothing too show-offy about it. Stuart and Stevie are singing close enough harmony vocals hear that I mostly just hear Stuart, except for an odd little part in the last verse where Stevie splits off to sing a few beat behind Stuart, who kindly stops to let him catch up. That sort of hints at a bigger finish to come than what the final few seconds of the song end up delivering, but it’s still an interesting way to think outside of the box in terms of how their vocalists can play off of each other. Lyrically, this is definitely the most peaceful track on the album – the calming effect of a pristine sunrise, a leisurely walk in the woods, a gentle breeze, stuff like that – seems to be the thing reminding a man that the world is bigger than his own little hopes and fears and that the universe has a way of sorting itself out in the end. I won’t claim to get any grand revelations from this one, or have a massively emotional responses to it, but it’s a nice little comedown as we turn one last corner into the album’s concluding track.
15. Best Friend
And how does How to Solve Our Human Problems conclude? With an offbeat, cutesy love song that almost sounds like Belle & Sebastian guested on some other vocalist’s solo project, instead of the other way around. Carla J. Easton is the vocalist in question here, and she’s got the sort of girlish innocence to her voice to make this song believable, since it’s about about a co-habitating man and woman who are supposed to just be friends trying desperately to ignore all of the signs telling them they’re falling hopelessly in love with each other. This thing may as well be ripped from the soundtrack of an indie rom-com – and it’s not like this would be unusual territory for Belle & Sebastian (especially considering Stuart’s God Help the Girl side project from several years back), at least apart from the sorta-Motown-inspired rhythm and the notable difference in tone from how Sarah Martin would probably approach this sort of a song. Does this do anything to definitively conclude the project and sum up the problems being addressed or solved? Honestly, not at all. As mentioned before, “Everything Is Now” would have been more appropriate in that sense. But I won’t hold the unusual placement of this track at the very end of the album against it, because it’s an adorable little song that I can find no other reason to dislike.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sweet Dew Lee $2
We Were Beautiful $1.25
Fickle Season $1
The Girl Doesn’t Get It $1.75
Everything Is Now (Instrumental) $1
Show Me the Sun $1.25
The Same Star $.75
I’ll Be Your Pilot $2
A Plague on Other Boys $1.50
Poor Boy $1.75
Everything Is Now (Part Two) $1
Too Many Tears $1.25
There Is an Everlasting Song $.75
Best Friend $1.25
Stuart Murdoch: Vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards
Stevie Jackson: Vocals, electric and acoustic guitar
Sarah Martin: Vocals, keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar, violin, flute
Richard Colburn: Drums, percussion
Chris Geddes: Keyboards
Bobby Kildea: Guitar, bass
Dave McGowan: Bass, guitar, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: